Of the three highlights mentioned in the last post on Caputo, the first one is hermeneutics. Caputo:
“The one word that I think best sums up the postmodern turn is ‘hermeneutics’, which means the theory of interpretation. I treat hermeneutics as the key to the postmodern mutation in the idea of truth and I think that ‘language games’ and ‘paradigm shifts’ presuppose a hermeneutic theory of truth. Interpretation in the pin that pricks the balloon of absolutism once and for all, and denies Pure Reason its over-inflated privileges without landing us in the ditch of relativism.”
The moment one talks about “interpretation” there are the invariable replies and questions that go something like this: “But does that mean I can interpret the sun to be cold and the earth flat?” “Is everyone’s interpretation valid?” “If everything is interpretation, aren’t we then throwing truth under the bus?”
Well, the answer is, of course not. One has to remember of what type of conversation he’s a participant. We are not building a tower, or flying to the moon, or answering questions about distance, speed, weight, time, or the other physical measurements of physical objects. No one is saying that the distance between the earth and the moon can be interpreted differently if we are talking in the context of miles, feet, meters, and so on. Such questions remind me of a small child who upon seeing a boy and a girl walking hand-in-hand, overhears the adults nearby to comment, “She thinks he hangs the moon,” and wonders to himself how that would be possible. Well, it’s not possible. Does that make what the adults asserted untrue? Of course not. To walk into a philosophical conversation and ask such questions is to reveal a naivety or immaturity regarding what it is people are talking about. We’ve all been there—we’ve all walked into conversations we didn’t understand and asked what we learned later, were questions that missed the point. No harm no foul. So, how should we understand what an “interpretation” is and how it is used in a philosophical conversation? Caputo:
“Take a typical crime drama on television. When an innocent person is ‘framed’ the villain has created a context in which the innocent person is made to appear guilty. The defense consists in producing an alternate frame under which everything the apparently guilty person did is re-described—the incriminating evidence was planted, the accused was at the scene of the crime but had just arrived there on other business, etc. But the crucial point is this: either way, there is a frame—the ‘frame up’ and the reframing, the right frame and the wrong. Now, call the frame the context and we can jack this up into a philosophical principle: nothing is ever context-free and nothing is immune to being re-contextualized. The battle waged between the prosecution and the defense is a hermeneutic battle between competing contextualizations.”
Whatever the area of knowledge, whatever the discipline, there is data, facts, evidence, and basic information, of which all who were educated and studied in those areas are familiar. Even many in the general public are familiar. All this accumulated information we might liken to a crime scene. And this information is eventually presented to a jury (first ourselves, then our peers, and the world in general). However, it is always understood and then presented in a frame, in a context, and we are asked to “see” or understand what all the information is supposed to mean or point towards (even if our intent is to show it points nowhere or means nothing). In other words, we are asked to interpret the information. No one simply recites the “facts” to a jury without any further context, regarding such things as intent, motive, means, law, custom, other witness accounts, and all the other aspects to a case that are much more important and pertinent than noting only the physical “facts.” Without the frame, without the context, without an interpretation, the “facts” would mean nothing—and remain just a collection of information.
Imagine taking a box of puzzle pieces and dumping them out, wildly, all over the floor, pointing to the jumbled mess, and saying, “Look, here is the evidence, the facts, all that we know, and this is what it means.” No, the pieces have to be put together, they have to be presented to form a whole, wherein we can see the “picture” of what all these pieces might mean or point toward. In the philosophical world, the analogy breaks down somewhat however, because the pieces can be put together in more than just one way. Put together one way, a certain picture emerges. Put together another way, a different picture emerges. The underlying principle remains however: The pieces must be put together (framed) and as a jumbled collection of just “facts” or “evidence” they mean nothing and do nothing for us. This is the difference between information and truth. Information is not truth until we decide what it means for the whole to be true—what it means for the picture that emerges to be true.
The “facts” are the very things used for the “frame-up” to begin with just as they could also be used to show a person’s innocence. But framed one way, they tell us something that is not true (the person is guilty). What is the difference? Perspective and interpretation. Did the facts change? Not necessarily. The way we looked at, saw, understood, and interpreted them changed. Our “frame” of reference changed. The ovens and gas chambers of Auschwitz stood before both the Nazi and the liberating allied soldiers as brute “facts”, but those “facts” were looked upon and interpreted in completely different ways by both. What did those “facts” mean? Well, it depends, right? From what frame, from what perspective, from what context or narrative was one looking? Caputo:
“We call the move made in hermeneutics postmodern because it sets out in exactly the opposite direction taken by Descartes in his search for absolute certitude and the universal rule of the mathematical method. Descartes tried to doubt everything, to clear his head of every possible presupposition which might prejudice his view of the things themselves. In hermeneutics, that is considered a little mad: the truth is gained not by approaching things without presuppositions—can you even imagine such a thing?—but by getting rid of inappropriate presuppositions (frame) and finding the appropriate ones, the very ones that give us access to the things in question…the ideal of presupposing nothing adopted by modern philosophers like Descartes is making an ideal of an empty head…presupposing nothing results in knowing nothing.”
This understanding of presuppositions is the dividing line between the modern and the postmodern. Moreover, it means the modern never really existed. It was an illusion. The attempt to pretend one was operating upon the “facts” and “evidence” alone, is unmasked by the postmodern. It is the revealing that this too (telling a story), is what the modern was doing, but the modern tried to hide this, mostly as a way of keeping and holding onto power. This mindset is what led to the great colonizing by the western powers of much of the rest of the world as they brought “reason” to the superstitious and backward—those who believed in “stories” while the west believed in “facts” and “science”. Modernity was simply a story that tried to tell everyone it wasn’t a story (“We are different from you backward folk, you see, we are just talking Science here”), while suppressing everyone else’s story. It’s a story it can no longer tell, because no one believes it anymore. Caputo continues:
“Having a robust set of presuppositions that casts things in the right light is what hermeneutics calls an ‘interpretation’, which is a far cry from ‘merely a matter of opinion’—or of simply doing the math. Interpretation is a matter of insight and of sensitivity to the singularity of the situation with which we are confronted, rather than submitting the situation to a set of inflexible rules laid down in advance by a Method or a pure fiction called pure Reason. We require a flexible notion of truth and reason but one that still has teeth—we obviously need to be able to say things are right and wrong in ethics and in physics—without driving ourselves mad with method or just plain miserable and mad, as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I am saying that the dichotomy ‘it’s either absolute or it’s relative’ (rational or irrational) is a ruse, a trap. So we have to get rid of it.”
And of course this is how religious fundamentalism works too—and how it is entirely modern. Everything is submitted to an inflexible set of rules laid down in a book (or something called “Nature”) and read in an inflexible, wooden, literal, and frozen way (like the little boy heard the comment about the moon). There is nothing behind the text—there is no depth; there is only the surface reading of the symbols on a page. The modern atheist reads the physical world in the same way. This is the hallmark of all fundamentalism, whether one’s book is the Bible or nature. Both the religious fundamentalist and the secular fundamentalist are saying, “The book (or nature) must be read the way I read it (surface/literal/wooden)—and any other way is heretical or (irrational) rather than a reasonable difference of interpretation.” This is what leads people to assume those with different views must be illogical, irrational, psychologically compromised (what secular fundamentalists believe about religious people), or evil or duped (what religious fundamentalists believe about secular people or religious liberals). Caputo continues:
“Nowadays, the word hermeneutics is a kind of umbrella term for a wide variety of theories of interpretation. To say something is true on this account is to say that at present this is our best interpretation we have, our best take on the truth, our best perspective. There is no truth without interpretation but having an interpretation does not make it true.”
Again, understanding that one’s take on life, religion, morality, meaning, purpose, relationships, economics, politics, science, work, and so in is an interpretation doesn’t mean that everyone’s interpretation is true. It simply means that none of us enjoy a one-to-one, perfect, unmediated, access to Truth, as if there were a direct correspondence of some sort between our perceiving and the object or concept being perceived. We need to admit they are interpretations. However, that doesn’t mean they are all true.
Now, the next question is usually, “Then how can we know which is true?” But that shouldn’t be the next question. That is the question of the person who just wants to know who is right and how we get the “right” answer. It is the question of the unreflective. Some introspection is called for. The next turn of mind should be, “Wow, do I realize my views in all these areas are interpretations?” In other words, when I say things like, “The science says, or proves, or shows…” Or, that, “The Bible says, or proves, or shows…” -do I understand I am missing something? I need to realize that the science or Bible say nothing until I have INTERPRETED them to “say” what I think it is they say. And how I interpret such things is never unmediated. I am “framing” my interpretations somehow. I am “seeing” them to say certain things, from a “certain” perspective. That fame is a narrative and that narrative is one we choose to live in by faith. Is one aware of this or not? If one can get this, it changes everything.
Often the narrative is caught rather than taught. We simply grow up and are enculturated into that narrative. It is the air we breathe, the ocean we swim in. The unreflective person is often completely unaware of it—he just assumes it to be true and the “way” things are. What the postmodern has done is reveal (unmask) this about the modern perspective. This is where the “Aha” moment comes for many. But does realizing they are all interpretations make everything relative? Caputo:
“…we have our hands full nowadays with a spate of religious fundamentalism claiming equal rights with science—everyone is entitled to their own opinion!—concerning things such as the theory of evolution. Far from being condoned by hermeneutics, this claim is a hermeneutical disaster, awash in hermeneutic confusion on at least two counts. The first is biblical hermeneutics (which is actually where the word was first used). On strictly biblical grounds, Creationism is a bad interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, as any informed religious believer can tell you. It is historically anachronistic and ignores the character of biblical narratives, which are religious stories, parables, or even poems, not modern scientific treatises. It makes the wrong presuppositions about the text and it makes a bad decision to reduce the text to its literal meaning…the second hermeneutic disaster in Creationism’s claim to equal time is that it is terrible science where interpretations are called theories…”
So the question is not “how do we know which is true” (which usually just means how can we know with certainty, empirically, and so on; but this begs the question—the idea that we can only know if something is true if we can know it empirically is disputed and has been unmasked by the postmodern turn as, in its self, an assertion that cannot be proved empirically), but, rather, which are good interpretations and why? Which ones offend neither head nor heart, neither reason nor faith? Which comport to our better angels and align with the true, the good, and the beautiful, but also do not offend our best science? Which ones are pertinent to the question at hand? Which ones take into consideration context, history, and philosophy? What are the moral or ethical aspects or consequences to this interpretation? And we need to leave a wide berth here, as even these questions require a robust and healthy set of presuppositions and interpretations. However, as we have these conversations, dialogue, and reflect, we can often see our way forward and several interpretations become “truer” than others, until a consensus makes its way into the general mind.
There is also a significant, existential, and practical difference it makes to truly understand what is being said here about hermeneutics. There are many, both religious and secular, fundamentalists, who believe they have to look at something a certain way, even though it may contradict their conscience, their hearts. For instance, on the religious side, there are many who have a very difficult time with what they think the Bible teaches regarding homosexuality or hell. But because they hold to a literal and surface understanding of the texts related to those areas, they feel they must put aside their hearts, their conscience, and hold to their view, which they believe is what the “Bible clearly teaches.” And on the secular side, there are those who have a difficult time with what they think Science teaches regarding, for instance, morality and ethics, because they believe the “Science clearly teaches” that the universe is purely material and physical.
Now, imagine if one were to realize that rather than these being hard and fast truths, or empirical truths, or mathematical truths, that they were in fact, interpretations and ones already situated within a philosophical frame of reference. Further, that frame of reference or narrative is adopted purely by faith, by an existential choice to “see” things in such a way. One may have had that frame of reference decided for them, through education and other cultural factors, or one may have made a personal existential decision, or it may be a combination of both and other factors too, but it is an interpretation made out of a narrative of meaning, and thus it is not necessarily what the Bible or Science clearly teaches—it is what we interpret them to teach.
Thus, we have a question now and a choice. First, why do I choose to see and understand these things in this way, if it is an interpretation, which means I could be wrong and there are other interpretations that may be correct? See, once we admit they are interpretations, we admit we may be wrong and we admit there are other reasonable ways to look at whatever the issue may be. The Bible and Science may be infallible, but I’m not—and neither is the reader. Second, why can’t I choose to look at this differently if it means not violating the Bible or Science, since another interpretation could fit well with either, with the added plus of not offending my conscience, my heart?
One might believe that all morality is relative or even non-existent and feel he has to believe this because it is what the “Science” tells him. But wait, the “Science” doesn’t tell us that. That is just as blatantly wrong as saying the “Bible” tells us one thing or another. One’s interpretation of the science (interpreted from a philosophical frame or narrative) is doing the telling here. This person may believe that he has to make the Holocaust or slavery relative, thus it was ethical and moral to the Nazi or Southern slave holder but not to those who opposed them, but regardless, it was relative. Thus, if the Nazi’s win or the South wins, then those practices become the new moral and ethical practices. This linear tight logic bothers many secularists. In fact, many try and oppose this conclusion on other grounds. They can’t bear the logic of their position and it bothers their conscience, just like the religious person can’t bear the logic of what the text seems to say and it bothers their conscience. But they don’t have to view it, interpret it, this way. They could realize that the “Science” doesn’t tell us this, but their interpretation (they are practicing philosophy not science at this point) of the science does, and maybe there are other ways to interpret the science just like there are other ways to interpret the Bible.
The question has to be asked: If the “Science” doesn’t “tell us” that we have to make the Holocaust relative to culture or time, thus we could view it another way, why would we still choose to “see” it the other way, as relative? If we were willing to admit it was only an interpretation and not demanded by the “Science”, I don’t think we would. I think it bothers the conscience of those who feel forced to see it this way. For a victim of the Holocaust, a survivor, why would we want them to think the “Science tells us” that their view they should not suffer for being a Jew, is relative to them, and of no more truth or validity than the Nazi view that they shouldsuffer for being a Jew, in fact, not even exist? If one is a surviving victim, everything within them rises up and says “Never!” to such a thought or line of reasoning. Can that cry trump our “Science”? To be told that one’s suffering is relative to whomever is making them suffer, that both the one suffering and the one causing the suffering, as to their truth claims, are equal, there is only a power difference, is about as insensitive and cold as telling people hell is reserved for them if they don’t agree with one’s view of salvation. Each, of course, would respond in their defense, “But it’s the truth.” No, it’s one’s interpretation. Huge difference.
Of course, if we believe that the “Science” does tell us morality is relative, that no philosophical interpretation is involved in that assertion, it is simply a clear “fact”, and to “see” it differently is to be just, well, wrong, then one has a very difficult task ahead. That means all those scientists who see it differently, don’t just have a different view, but are wrong, or illogical, or irrational, or don’t know the facts, are ignorant, or what-have-you. And all those other Christians who believe the Bible can be interpreted differently are just wrong as well. We are right, they are wrong. End of story. And a secularist might not like thinking that whether the Holocaust was evil or not is relative equally to the one who suffered and to the one who caused the suffering, but he has to go with the “Science.” And, for the Christian, he might not like that the Bible teaches some are pre-destined to hell (he imagines), but he has to go with the “Bible.”
Well, once we realize these are one’s (philosophical) interpretations of what the “Science” or “Bible” tells us, we can quit saying this is what the Science or Bible “tells” us and start examining why we interpret and “see’ either of them the way we do and why we supposedly must “go” with these views to begin with. Maybe we should quit using the “Science tells us” and the “Bible tells us” as lazy covers for what are purely our own (whether personally or collectively) philosophical interpretations (narratives) and instead start telling each other why we interpret the way we do, where we think such views might lead (or have led), and why our interpretations should be preferred over another’s.
That is the route out of fundamentalism, whether of the secular or religious variety, and that route was created by the postmodern turn and understanding hermeneutics. You’re welcome.